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Evan Parker - The Snake Decides

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Artist: Evan Parker

Album: The Snake Decides

Label: Psi

Review date: Nov. 24, 2003

Serpents have long been associated with the anthropomorphic attributes of cunning and deception. Over the years, Evan Parker’s saxophones have established a similar outsider status based on clever subversion of existing norms. There’s nothing quite like his sound on soprano or tenor in the annals of improvised music. Handy appellations like ‘otherworldly’ and ‘hypnotic’ don’t even scratch the surface in describing his seditious and, oddly enough, highly influential applications of extended techniques such as circular breathing and multiphonics.

Parker is also a pioneer in the practice of protracted solo improvisation. To date, nearly all of his solitary forays on record have employed the straight horn as vehicle. Seminal albums have been released/reissued on Chronoscope, Ah Um, and FMP, with a lone tenor date available from Okkadisk. The obvious explanation for the disparity seems to be the lighter, more streamlined mechanics of the soprano, which lend themselves better to Parker’s particular brand of prolonged sound production.

Thanks to the start-up of Parker’s own Psi label several years ago, his releases on Incus, an imprint he co-curated with Derek Bailey, have steadily been returning to circulation. The Snake Decides is the latest from this lineage. Recorded in a cathedral space at Oxford in early 1986 by Michael Gerzon, a fellow pioneer, this time in the field of audio technology, the disc presents two long tracks coupled with two shorter ones. Parker’s signature method of helixical split tones is heavily evident from the opening title piece. The nearly 20-minute excursion writhes and inverts on itself in continuous braiding tubes of aqueous sound. Oddly enough the daunting length seems to trickle away in no time, the product of Parker’s thaumaturgic ability to bend and subvert temporal space.

“Leipzig’s Folly” unfolds in slightly less stringent fashion, with Parker injecting a more porous inflection into the stream of steady spilling tonal ribbons. A brittle metallic friction still bathes his cyclic channeled breaths, but the effect is less overwhelming than on the opener. The cryptically titled “Buriden’s Ass” and “Haine’s Last Tape” take up a mere six or so minutes each. On the former, knotted tattoos of whistling notes give his horn the semblance of a shakuhachi flute, while the latter piece eases up on density without diminishing the speed of articulation, even hinting at shades of melodicism through another cascading funnel of tones and overtones that soon disperses into silence.

Comparing Parker’s work here with that on the other Psi releases Six of One (1980) and Lines Burnt in Light (2001) is both instructive and remunerative. The three discs present a figurative connect-the-dots schematic, uncanny in its capacity to illustrate the evolution of Parker’s techniques along with the parameters of his solo art. There are those that accuse him of treading the same creative water all these years – undeniably exhilarating and refreshing, but drawn from the same substantive source just the same. I’ve done it myself on occasion and have come to recognize the misguided nature of such critiques.

Drawing an example from a completely different idiom, bluesman Fred McDowell played essentially the same basic figures ad infinitum for most of his career. What made them revitalizing and nascent on nearly every occasion were the subtle variations he laced through their familiar structures. Parker does much the same thing, albeit on an arguably more complex level. Such a perspective makes it hard to fault him for doing so. There is however another aspect of Parker’s decision-making process that does seem ripe for good-natured ribbing. With the wealth of soprano material available, perhaps it’s time for him to turn attentions toward shoring up the relative paucity of his solo work on the larger horn.

By Derek Taylor

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